Thursday, July 30, 2015

album review: 'the blade' by ashley monroe

Okay, fun experiment. Name a country band that is all women and more than just a duo. Then name one that might have some mainstream appeal... and that's not the Dixie Chicks.

At this point, a few of you are probably wondering who could possibly fit that category, and in 2011, we got an answer: the Pistol Annies, a group formed of newcomer Angeleena Presley, A-list powerhouse Miranda Lambert, and underground country starlet Ashley Monroe. Together they cranked out the pretty damn excellent debut Hell On Heels in 2011 and the great followup Annie Up in 2013, but they're probably most well-known for collaborating with Blake Shelton and playing background vocals on 'Boys 'Round Here', easily one of the worst hit songs of that year. And I don't blame any of the Pistol Annies for that - they're a hell of a lot better than the minimal role they played in that song. Hell, Ashley Monroe proved that when she showed up on Blake Shelton's next album on the song 'Lonely Tonight', one of the few highlights of that record.

And yet some of you are probably wondering why the hell I called her an underground starlet. Well, Ashley Monroe initially was positioned a decade ago as another entry in the wave of fire-spitting female country singers in the mid-to-late 2000s, but Sony outright refused to release her debut unless she had a charting hit, eventually only getting a fragmented release briefly in 2006 before finally getting on iTunes in 2009. A damn shame, because the album is great, a gem where only diehard fans and the country underground seemed to care.

Fast forward to 2013, where the Pistol Annies were gaining swell and Ashley Monroe had signed to Warner Bros Nashville in order to release her follow-up record Like A Rose... and like her last release, it barely made the charts and the only people who seemed to care were those in the country underground - plus a lot of critics, because, again, the album is excellent. Not perfect - it's got its rougher, hokier moments, and the duet with Blake Shelton that ends the album is pointless - but it had a certain lived-in maturity that proved really charming, especially with songs like 'Weed Instead Of Roses' that were a bit goofy but still a lot of fun.

So now that her career has stabilized - probably bigger than ever thanks to the Blake Shelton collaboration - I wasn't surprised when I heard her newest album is a slight pivot towards the mainstream, and I really wasn't all that worried. After all, she was still the primary songwriter, and it's always a good thing to have more women getting critical acclaim in country. Were my assumptions correct?

Well, I was right not to be worried... but I will say that I'm a little underwhelmed by this release in comparison with Ashley Monroe's previous albums. And here's the thing: I'm not quite sure I can say her choice to target the mainstream was the issue here, because considering how neotraditional this album sounds, I cannot see this getting airplay. This looks like a larger issue across the board, and I think a lot of it really has to do with the underlying concept not being the best fit for this execution.

So let's start with that concept first: for all intents and purposes, this is a breakup album in terms of its subject matter. And when I say a breakup, I mean that Ashley Monroe is approaching this break-up from a variety of different angles and situations and emotional states of mind. Sometimes she's directly involved in the dumping, sometimes she's the one getting dumped, and in a few cases she's providing consolation to those who have been dumped with songs like 'Weight Of The Load' and 'Has Anybody Ever Told You'. Hell, there are cases like on 'Dixie' where it wasn't so much of a breakup but that her husband was killed and she needs an exit strategy to get out of Texas after killing someone herself! In other words, this is an album exploring the various emotions and regrets that come with that breakup, from the fearful hesitation that comes with instigating a break-up you later regret on 'I Buried Your Love Alive' to consoling the person who did the dumping to accept it like she has on 'From Time To Time'. Then there are the points where she doesn't handle things nearly as well, like trying to find some drunken bliss on 'If Love Was Fair' and then frustrated when it didn't work on 'If The Devil Don't Want Me'. And then there are the moments where she's just trying to roll with the experience of losing love, from the dumping point of view on 'I'm Good At Leavin' to the dumpee's point of view on 'Winning Streak'. And then there's the title track, which really does crystallize the album at its best - the painful risk that comes with loving and trusting another, something you can't control and thus it can hurt when that love is abandoned. They might grab the handle of that knife, you might grab the blade.

And it helps that the production and instrumentation is genuinely beautiful across the board. I might not always be sold on Vince Gill as a country singer, but my god, I love his production here: neotraditional in its incorporation of fiddles and steel guitar, but modern in his ability to deeper the mix and bring in a spacier acoustic-touched mix with just enough rattling percussion to compliment the existing texture. Melodically, it does very much fall into a midtempo vibe, but with the noir snarl of 'I Buried Your Love Alive', the jittery pianos over the simmer on 'Winning Streak', the pianos supplementing the melodies on the title track, 'From Time To Time' and 'Has Anybody Ever Told You', and those basslines... if you're looking for an example of how to handle mix balance right on this record, it's here. Sure, they might not have a ton of texture, but they always have a distinctive presence and sometimes an interweaving melodic support like on 'Dixie' and 'Weight Of The Load'. It's balancing the low-end with the melodic groove and giving Ashley Monroe's fluttering voice a lot of room to breathe. And of course she sounds great, balancing that shattered elegance that with enough gravitas and maturity to lend reality to her lyrics - she might be in a stable relationship now, but there's life behind those lyrics.

And yet the more I listened through this album, I struggled to unpack why it doesn't hit me as hard as I wanted - and then it hit me. This might be one of the most mellow, placid, accepting and contented break-up albums I've ever heard. Not that Ashley Monroe isn't capable of showing hurt or sadness or moving on, but there's very little that's raw or exposed about her vocals that cuts deeper. And it's the same across the entire album in instrumentation and the songwriting. The instrumentation fairs the best - at least there are darker, more melancholic moments like 'The Blade' or the underlying subtle sadness of 'If Love Was Fair' or 'If The Devil Don't Want Me'. But take the song 'Bombshell' as a prime example - it's a track where Ashley Monroe is hesitant to find the right moment to break up with this guy and does it mid-track before driving away - and yet the song has such a sudden ending that you'd almost wish the writing hadn't included that breakup moment just to let the negative space fill in the blanks with your imagination. And that takes us to the writing, namely in that it feels oddly vague for Monroe. She's always had a knack for fleshing out her songs with little fragments to tell more of a story, but more of those - to say nothing of the more transgressive edge that peppered Like A Rose - seem missing here, and thus it's harder for me to engage with stories being told, as much as I like the nuance in the emotions behind them. More to the point, there's very little anger or fear on this album, nothing in the writing that cuts to real heartbreak. It feels oddly muffled, never quite glimpsed in its entirety, and without that raw core, I often feel I'm grasping for something that's unnecessarily abstract. And this is a problem because it undercuts the dramatic stakes of the stories - yes, I can understand that Monroe's maturity and world-weariness blunts that anger, but it feels like on many occasions we've jumped straight to finding acceptance without seeing or experiencing the moments where the relationship broke apart.

In short, for a breakup album The Blade is an easier and more beautiful experience than you'd expect, and while I definitely appreciate the variety of stories, I can't help but feel the deeper impact was missed. It's an album that I can definitely appreciate and respect for its beautiful melodies and texture and great performances and a lot of the nuance in the writing - but I feel its missing that defining centre, which means for me it's a solid 7/10 and a recommendation. Far from a bad album, but definitely shy of being a great one - maybe next time Ashley Monroe catches the blade, we could see a little more of the blood.

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